As I proceed on my journey through Frodo’s Middle-earth — currently well into The Two Towers — it’s time to take up the metaphorical pen again as part of my #TalkingTolkien series in this, my sixth reread of The Lord of the Rings. As I approach the halfway mark — the end of Book 3 which signals the midway point of the second volume — a few more things strike me about how Tolkien paces and structures his work.
I’ve talked before about Portals, about Crossing Places and Stopping Places signposting significant points in the narrative. At some stage I want to talk about landscapes in more detail, for example how each book so far includes a mysterious woodland or forest at its heart with its odd denizens: Tom Bombadil and Goldberry in the Old Forest, Galadriel and Celeborn in Lothlórien, and Treebeard in Fangorn.
But right now I want to consider how The Lord of the Rings appears to incorporate a number of so-called basic plots; while the author’s use of interlacing stories offer a kind of covering garment, archetypal plots appear to provide the scaffolding on which the fabric hangs.
Back in 2004 the late Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots caused a bit of a stir, purporting to identify just seven archetypal themes on which all human narrative is found. While in my review I was sceptical about how he justified his subtitle ‘Why we tell stories’ (too much reliance on Freudian theories, and a conservative prejudice against anything not conforming to Booker’s ‘rules’) there’s no doubt that the seven plots he enumerates give us a working template for examining different genres of fiction. His seven ‘basic plots’ are
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
In Chapter 19, ‘Reaching the Goal’, Booker opines that The Lord of the Rings is “another instance of a story which is not shaped by a single basic plot but which contains elements of all seven woven together.” It’s hard not to disagree with him here. The most obvious plot is The Quest, as Frodo struggles not to find and obtain a great secret or object but to consign the One Ring to the Cracks of Doom. But, as Booker emphasises, LOTR is not just a Quest story: “it is also an immense version of the Overcoming the Monster plot.” Frodo slays Sauron by destroying the Ring, the location of the Dark Lord’s quintessence partly modelled on the Russian folktale villain Koschei’s soul hidden in a needle within an egg. (Incidentally this is the same motif repeated in the Harry Potter stories, with Voldemort’s soul contained in several horcruxes.)
The novel is also about Rebirth. Sauron is defeated on March 25th, once upon a time the start date of the Julian calendar, heralded by the spring equinox. The dark days of a figurative winter have, for now, ended, symbolised by the White Tree of Gondor finally springing into leaf: “the tree that was withered shall be renewed.” It tells too of the Voyage and Return with the return of the hobbits to the Shire, much as Bilbo did in his own ‘There and Back Again’ story. As with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the journey of the archetypal hero, Frodo and company return changed — Sam is wiser, Pippin and Merry have grown physically — and they all return home to expunge the scoured Shire of the evil influence of Saruman.
In addition Booker sees the hobbits’ changed fortunes and enhanced status as indicating Rags to Riches, though I think his argument in this case is weaker than for the others. Rather this theme applies more aptly to Aragorn, whose Cinderella role takes him from being the ill-regarded Ranger called Strider to becoming, under the name Elessar, King of Gondor and husband of the elf Arwen.
I also think Booker misjudges the nature of Tragedy and Comedy in The Lord of the Rings. If, for the moment disregarding all Booker’s cod psychological theorising, we reduce the nature of the two plots to whether they conclude with either a happy or a sad ending, we find support in Tolkien’s own musings on their difference, in his 1947 essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’. Here he points to the Greek word catastrophe, which originally meant an ‘overturning’ or, as we might say, a U-turn; a story which seems to be heading in one direction suddenly turns back on itself. Tolkien called sad tales becoming happy eucatastrophes, and their shadow equivalents dyscatastrophes.
I thus see Tragedy and Comedy rather differently from Booker, who for instance detects the cycle’s tragic hero in Saruman, whose fate is a downward trajectory. It’s Frodo whom I see instead as the true tragic hero, the reluctant Ring-Bearer who suffers hurt at Weathertop, who pushes through (with help from Sam) through to the end until his shadow twin Gollum unwittingly helps him achieve the quest; and whose traumatic experiences render his later life on Middle-earth melancholy and not very bearable. Meanwhile the happy-ever-after ending typical of eucatastrophe comes as the Third Age gives way to the Fourth, with the Middle-earth defeats of Sauron and, in the Shire, of Saruman, echoed by the recognition of Aragorn as king and, more parochially, by Sam’s wedding to Rose.
There is much to acknowledge as satisfying in Booker’s overall thesis of archetypal plots but I profoundly disagree with his final assessment of Tolkien’s epic:
Yet the fact that Aragorn’s own drama unfolds in a sense off centre-stage, and that it is not he but the much more limited, child-like Frodo who is the central figure of the book, leaves us at the end with the sense that there is still something lacking and that, for all its splendours, The Lord of the Rings is not a fully integrated, grown-up story.Chapter 19, ‘Reaching the Goal’
There is so much that’s simply wrong and misguided in that summary. Aragorn may be the perfect hero but it’s with Frodo that the reader surely sides: the hobbit represents the Everyman, flaws and all, that Tolkien wants us to empathise with. Booker also muddles The Hobbit and its protagonist Bilbo with the sequel starring Frodo when he pontificates that LOTR was “originally conceived to entertain a child, and therefore had a rather child-like hero”; this is a false assumption of simply epic proportions, promptly negating his assessment.
In some ways Frodo’s Christ-like suffering chimed in with Tolkien’s religious faith: details like the wound in the side, the time in the wilderness, and the temptation on the high place, were all focused on one who was (to use Isaiah’s words) “despised and rejected of men” and hinted at the drawbacks of Frodo’s role as a redeemer. If not exactly “a man of sorrows”, being a halfing, he was certainly “acquainted with grief”. But I won’t push this, the faintest of analogies; I’ll merely point out that if the author had a vision of the tragic hero it certainly wasn’t the figure of Saruman — if anything, the turncoat wizard plays the Judas role.
The fact that Booker (who died in 2019) denied global warning, passive smoking and the dangers of asbestos, for example, and remained a virulent eurosceptic to the end of his life, mustn’t blind us to his flash of insight into the basic plots which have dominated and characterised human narratives over millennia. That Tolkien had already instinctively incorporated these plots into his epic is surely also an unforeseen wonder, and perhaps a part explanation of the continuing appeal of The Lord of the Rings.
Part of my series #TalkingTolkien discussing aspects of The Lord of the Rings